Camille found herself questioning if she’d be brave enough to stand up against the hierarchy in a professional context after playing Open Heart, a medical drama. Rakshit, on the other hand, was able to “live different lives, which wouldn’t possibly be lived by one person in their lifetime. I sort of know what it’s like to be one of the best doctors of a city, to be the daughter of a president, to be a single mom of a daughter.”
Choices, Representation, and the Parallels to Life
Pixelberry and Choices have repeatedly come under fire for the lack of racial, gender, and sexuality diversity in its books. A few of the prominent concerns have been gender-locked MCs and Love Interests (LIs), meaning you cannot romance a different gender. Appearance matters, and the game has consistently put out thin, able-bodied MCs and LIs, and it lacks hair options that suit Black and brown characters.
On June 15, 2020, Pixelberry issued a statement in light of the Black Lives Matter protests that listed actionable steps to increasing diverse book covers, stories on people of color, diverse LIs, and a diverse writer’s room. Shortly before the statement, the company put Open Heart: Book 2 on hiatus. Several players assumed that Pixelberry had killed one of its characters of color—foreshadowed by a funeral scene in its opening chapters—and were possibly rewriting his storyline. Then, last year, My Two First Loves released a chapter that depicted police brutality and violence, and players had the choice to skip the scene.
I’m a brown South Asian woman, and I am acutely aware of how my characters’ skins are a shade of brown that does not feel like my brown. So, while I’d like to assume that characters with a remotely South Asian name (Ajay Bhandari, Priya Lacroix, Aisha Bhatt, and Shreya Mistry) are, in fact, representative of my ethnicity, fewer books have explicitly centered conversations on race and culture—and by extension, the lived experiences of Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and multiracial people.
Costes also points out the lack of Asian love interests, and even with LIs of color, options are “limited to only Black, caucasian, and Hispanic” characters.
“I believe that being able to identify ethnically and sexually to the MCs is important, and as I am a white caucasian heterosexual woman, I probably benefit from the fact that most stories seem to have a baseline MC that fits with the ‘white caucasian female’ type, with main LIs being males,” Camille says.
There’s room for expression in books that let players choose the gender and race of both the MCs and LIs. Players may romance multiple genders, and sometimes would need to confirm a LI before continuing to its sequel. But for books that emphasize romantic subplots, I’ve frequently rebelled by having my characters maintain a strictly platonic relationship with suggested LIs.
“Many of the choices I make in the game that I wouldn’t make in real life are the romantic ones, like kissing the love interest or even telling them that I love them, rather than being single, even though I’m not into romance at all,” says Higgins, who lives in California. For her, playing as someone else adds “more fun and adventure to things.”
Higgins has Asperger’s syndrome and tells me, “I have noticed that there aren’t a lot of characters in Choices with neurological disabilities like me, so I’m hoping there might be one in future books.”
When I look at my characters, I see a version of myself who doesn’t struggle with anxiety and trauma. She isn’t scared of her mind, and her body doesn’t work against her.
For me, the game’s flaws are a reminder that I am of my own agency. I cannot pause or replay my life—there’s only one way forward. And so, I walked into the diagnostic center and grabbed my biopsy reports. I was healthy.
More Great WIRED Stories